Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 5 - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

At this time of year many people’s thoughts will turn to home and ideas of family (however constructed) that dominate the festive period. Our complex relationship with these concepts has always been a good basis for drama so now seems an appropriate time for the Pinter at the Pinter season to present the plays that have most to say about contained concepts of home and the difficulties of communication between people separated by physical or metaphorical distances, a barrier to intimacy that places a strain on their interaction.The combination of Pinter’s first play The Room, the 10-minute duologue Victoria Station and Family Voices based on an exchange of letters together become a study of the shifting attachment to home, place and identity.

2018 has been a significant year for Pinter, not least because today marks a decade exactly since the playwright’s death. And while Harold Pinter’s work is a fairly consistent part of the theatre landscape, much loved by creatives, it feels as though audiences have also had a major breakthrough this year thanks to a series of clarifying productions that have transformed the work into a number of mainstream hits. Back in January, The Birthday Party at this very theatre was a huge success, combining an all-star cast including Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan with a tense and meaningful interpretation of this influential play that intrigued audiences and critics alike.

Since September, the four preceding Pinter collections in Jamie Lloyd’s fabulous season have been hugely successful, not only in bringing less frequently performed work to the stage in carefully curated programmes, but in revealing the huge variety in Pinter’s work that have made him such an influential practitioner. Where once we might think only of long pauses and a sense of menace, our view has been vastly expanded; from Pinter One we saw his role as a political commentator; from Two the nature of role-playing in romantic relationships; Pinter Three showed us his ability to capture loneliness and quiet despair which became so moving, while Four looked at domestic conflict and isolation. As a collective theatre audience, we approach the end of the year with a new-found appreciation of Pinter’s variety and learned to feel it on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

This discussion about communication is particularly pertinent to Pinter Five which opens with the 45-minute one-act piece The Room. A precursor to The Birthday Party, the story is set in a single rented room of an odd urban boarding house. As it opens Rose is talking in undisturbed monologue to a husband who barely registers her incessant chatter, unable to get a word in edge ways as his wife poses and usually answers her own questions while serving his dinner. Played by Jane Horrocks, the character instantly suggests someone safely in her own world, comfortable and self-sustaining. She requires her husband’s attention but never his voice to support or confirm her own view of the world, a trait that filters through a series of bizarre events.

Throughout The Room characters seem to exist in slightly different versions of the same world, as though none of them are physically present in the same space despite their interaction, or at least they see and respond to that room entirely differently – a feeling of dislocation which director Patrick Marber heightens very effectively. Rose Hudd certainly seems trapped there and unlike the surrounding characters is unable to step outside, yet that is a hint that the others – the frustrated landlord and the strange couple who believe the flat is vacant – do not belong to the outside world either, as if they manifest in the moment and retreat again into the shadows of the house.

Miscommunication then dominates the action, and while husband Bert (an expressive Rupert Graves) lays on the bed for some time with his arms clasped around his head, Mr and Mrs Sands barely listen to Rose, continuing with their own narrative which creates a strange feeling of displacement as they appear to lay claim to the Hudd home. This concern with place becomes important not just for Rose who maintains a neat and comfortable existence with her husband, but also for Mr Kidd the landlord (Nicholas Woodeson) whose own abode seems ambiguous, the flat-hunting Sands and even for Bert who escapes to drive his truck for reasons that remain obscure. Is home therefore a physical space of belonging or some ethereal concept based on a feeling of comfort and welcome?

After the interval, the entertaining Victoria Station explores this notion in more detail with a conversation between a taxi driver and his control room operator asking him to collect a passenger at the station for a long journey. Throughout, the two men are at odds with one another, failing to understand each other’s meaning and unable to communicate their message with considerable comic effect. The wordplay here is reminiscent of the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, using language to signal purposeful and accidental miscommunication that creates frustration on both sides, while only slowly revealing the context that determines and affects their respective points of view.

As with The Room, you feel that both men exist in a vacuum, that the real world doesn’t truly surround them hence the driver’s silent passenger and the operator’s failure to contact other cabs. Colin Mcfarlane as the controller becomes increasingly exasperated with the muddled exchange of information and the seeming belligerence of his driver, while Rupert Graves is delightfully absent as the oddly reticent and literal cabbie unable to recognise London’s famous landmarks. Their reliance on each other suggests an enduring loneliness that this unexpected moment of contact makes clear to them both, while the confinement of the taxi and operating booth offer a soothing comfort, a protected space, a home of sorts in which both men can silently exist.

Pinter 3 showed us how moving these short plays can be and Family Voices picks-up on this theme with a particularly impressive central performance from relative newcomer Luke Thallon. One of the joys of this Pinter at the Pinter season has been to see established actors and comic performers working alongside theatre’s rising stars, offering everyone an equal chance to shine. Thallon has grabbed that opportunity to showcase a range of skills both as the eager Mr Sands in The Room and as Voice One or the Son in this cleverly staged radio play.

Using a range of accents and voices, Thallon along with Horrocks as Voice Two (Mother) and Graves as Voice Three (Father) relay a series of not quite connected monologues as letters pass between a geographically and emotionally distanced family. Pinter plays with form here using the three separate character narratives to create a texture that informs the audience’s perspective on this family’s wider history and experience. Within the Son’s letters he recounts a number of comic incidents involving the fellow residents of his lodging house, a cast of near-grotesques who Thallon conjures with distinct voice and physicality as he inhabits a seductive older woman with a plain daughter and an imposing neighbour intruding on his bath time.

The tone is chatty, conversational, a series of happy stories told to his mother with a pleasure belying the difficulties that seem to exist between them. Working with Thallon, director Marber keeps the action moving around a central bedstead, signalling changing locations but remaining still enough to engage the audience in each scenario aided by Thallon’s excellent performance – a highlight of the season so far.

Horrocks’s Mother character must create a counter tone that appears to disregard Thallon’s narrative entirely, as though neither receives the other’s missives. Instead, in what becomes an emotional piece, the Mother increasingly pleads for her son to answer her letters, implying an unbroachable difference between them that becomes increasingly painful to her which Horrocks conveys with beauty and fragility. Like Lee Evans’s wonderful Monologue in Pinter 3, Horrocks elicits considerable pathos from this character, untethered as she seems to be from home and family, yearning into the void.

In the final section of this wonderful play, Rupert Graves plays the deceased Father writing to his son from beyond the grave, creating a third more wistful tone that is full of a rather formal love for his son and hope for the future. As the three pieces cut across one another, these entirely different-sounding conversations create a growing sense of despair as they explore concepts of home – the Son clearly feels most comfortable in the freedom of his new life, whereas for Mother and Father a connection to their child (although crucially never to each other) grounds their own sense of belonging. The timelines perhaps are not aligned and we cannot even be sure that these three separate monologues are from members of the same family but you want to think that they are.

It seems appropriate in this Christmas week to think more about home, family and how ineffectively we really communicate with those we love the most. The collective works that make-up Pinter 5 feel as insightful and meaningful as any of the Pinter at the Pinter anthologies that have come before, and while perhaps The Room is the least electrifying, the combination of Soutra Gilmour’s imaginative staging, Patrick Marber’s considered direction and excellent performances from an ensemble cast of established stars and exciting newcomers, means this Jamie Lloyd season really is the theatre gift that keeps on giving.

Pinter Five is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

12 responses to “Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices – Harold Pinter Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Happy New Year.

    Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful and extensive review. You’ll be aware by now that I don’t share your high opinion of the recent Pinters, though the sheer scope of the project still makes it unmissable for me. I think, too, that you might be overstating the success of both The Birthday Party and Pinter at the Pinter, none of which, as far as I know, has filled the medium-sized HPT. Michael Billington, Pinter’s biographer, is generally more pleased with the productions than I have been but I can’t help noticing that neither TBP nor any of Pinter 1-4 made it into his top 10 for 2018.

    I think Pinter Five is the most impressive so far, though, and can’t help wondering if this is because Patrick Marber’s approach struck me as the most respectful we’ve seen in the series. A lot of the others seemed to be using the plays to serve the director whereas Marber’s direction struck me as being squarely in the service of the scripts. I confess that conclusion is a bit tentative because The Room was the only one of the three pieces that I really knew.

    The Room is, as you say, a precursor to The Birthday Party. It’s tempting almost to see it as a preparatory sketch so it was good to see Marber and the cast make a fine case for it as a play in its own right.

    “a husband who barely registers her incessant chatter, unable to get a word in edge ways as his wife poses and usually answers her own questions”

    Was that the way you saw it? I thought he was unwilling, rather than unable, to make small talk with his wife. Unlike the more socialised Petey who responds affectionately to Meg’s inane chatter, Bert doesn’t even seem to be listening, let alone willing to join in. He’s a totally self-obsessed character – note that when he finally opens his mouth he basically talks at his wife rather than to her. I always think such taciturn roles must be rather hard to play and Graves did very well with it. As Rose, Horrocks looked a bit too much like Hilda Ogden for comfort (maybe that’s why you thought her old man couldn’t get a word in!) but otherwise was fine (certainly better than her rather miscast stint as Regan when I last saw her).

    One of the drawbacks of colour-blind casting – which has worked pretty well so far in the series – is that there’s no real way of knowing that Riley is a black man (Pinter refers to him as a ‘blind negro’ at first and then, for some reason, as ‘the negro’ in the stage directions even though he is ‘Riley’ in the cast list and character tags. MacFarlane’s performance, though, was very good.

    I thought Victoria Station was by far the funniest of the sketches/playlets we’ve seen so far but I suspect this was down to absolutely brilliant performances from Graves and MacFarlane. The downside of this was that Family Voices was almost an anticlimax to end the evening. That said, it was far from bad: the performances were superb and Marber’s subtle staging of this radio piece was impressive. I hadn’t been too impressed with LukeThallon as Mr Sands in The Room (neither he nor Emma Naomi seemed to capture the 1950s atmosphere as accurately as the other cast members) but in Family Voices he was very fine.

    I’ll be seeing Pinter Six next week and look forward to finally reading your review and seeing if we agree.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Happy New Year, hope you had a lovely Christmas.

      Nice to see we’re starting the year as we mean to go on – partially in agreement and partially at odds! I am certainly enjoying the refreshed approach more than you, but I do think Pinter is still a hard sell and with seven collections on offer there is a danger of splitting the audience, not everyone will be able to attend all of them. And I wouldn’t necessarily agree that a full house (especially in preview with ATG prices) and appearance in a personal top 10 is the main criteria to judge the success of a show or a season. The collective effect of Pinter at the Pinter, which has achieved considerable critical and audience acclaim as a whole, is far more than a tidy revenue stream, it is attracting new audiences to the work and making an unarguable case for the writer’s continued relevance, not to mention the merging of established and new talent which has its own artistic benefits.

      Regarding The Room, I did see Bert’s lack of response as both being unable and unwilling to speak, the result of years of listening to his wife and now not bothering to even try to respond. Perhaps the latter has greater emphasis now this version has run through a few more times, it’s always interesting to hear how a production evolves as the run unfolds. I certainly enjoyed the comic-implications of Victoria Station, although other reviewers wish it had been more sinister, but Family Voices was the high point for me, partly for the performances but also for how dynamically Marber staged a radio play without losing the emotion of it and the call on our imagination to create some of the scenarios in the son’s monologues.

      I’m already sure we’ll disagree about Pinter 6 which is very fine indeed, probably the piece that has made the most pointed use of directorial style and design.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    ” I wouldn’t necessarily agree that a full house (especially in preview with ATG prices) and appearance in a personal top 10 is the main criteria to judge the success of a show or a season”

    I’m not one to suggest there’s a strong correlation between popularity and merit, but there’s an inevitable connection between popularity and success. I might be mistaken but I seem to remember the two Kristin Scott Thomas appearances (Betrayal and Old Times) came rather closer to filling the Comedy/HPT. Those two productions are still the best Pinters I’ve seen on stage in recent years. Similarly, I don’t set much store at all by ranking lists (even my own). But I did think it noteworthy that this particular critic, Pinter’s biographer, made no mention of any of four major Pinter productions in his list or the accompanying article.

    “…Bert’s lack of response as both being unable and unwilling to speak, the result of years of listening to his wife and now not bothering to even try to respond.”

    I see your colleague on TRH (Stephen Bates) goes even further than me and suggests Bert’s silence might be a deliberate control device. He also, like me, saw a definite resemblance to Hilda Ogden in Jane Horrocks’s Rose!

    “I’m already sure we’ll disagree about Pinter 6 which is very fine indeed, probably the piece that has made the most pointed use of directorial style and design.”

    I’m looking forward to Celebration though, to be honest, I don’t expect any of the cast to be as convincingly revolting as Michael Gambon or as wickedly sexy as Janie Dee. It simply wouldn’t be fair to expect a cast as tremendous as C4 assembled for that TV adaptation. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth taking an hour out of your busy schedule to look it up. It’s still online at present – googling ‘celebration pinter gambon youtube’ should find it.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      ‘but there’s an inevitable connection between popularity and success’

      I take you point but in the arts profit is not the only measure of success, besides we don’t actually have a clue how financially viable the season has been. From the reviews I’ve seen and the word of mouth responses from audiences this season has struck a cord, expanding the audience for Pinter’s work and that is an achievement itself, alongside the high quality and interesting approaches to performance and production.

      There is lots of excellent theatre happening at venues all over the country that won’t have a full house every night, but that doesn’t make their artistic contribution any the less valuable. On one occasion, I was one of only two people in the audience of a show I gave 4* to, they clearly didn’t make a lot of money but it was a “successful” piece of theatre nonetheless.

      I’m also not sure the absence of Pinter from the Guardian’s top 10 of the year really says anything at all. I reviewed about 200 shows last year so however much you like something trying to whittle that down to 10 is still going to be rather spurious, the individual rating at the time is a more valuable indicator of the production’s effect on the reviewer.

      Anyway, Stephen’s reviews are always excellent and he did a fine job with the latest Pinter anthologies. I’ll look forward to your thought on Pinter 6 when you see it.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “I’m also not sure the absence of Pinter from the Guardian’s top 10 of the year really says anything at all”

    Apologies for labouring the point but I wouldn’t want any of your readers to think I give undue weight to ranking lists in The Guardian or any other publication. It’s very specifically the critic rather than the newspaper to which I refer. I probably disagree with Michael Billington more often than we concur and I certainly wouldn’t cast him as the oracle. But it’s surely noteworthy (though perhaps no more than noteworthy) that Pinter’s biographer (official biographer, if you please) has no place for any one of five major new Pinter productions in his top 10 of 2018. I’m looking forward to his, as well as your, piece on Pinter Six because he, apparently, directed those two pieces at LAMDA (just before I started going to theatre seriously again, unfortunately).

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      No worries, let the record show that! It’s a small footnote as you say but also worth equally noting that Mr Billington gave 4* to The Birthday Party and to all the Pinter collections so far, so he certainly felt extremely positively about them even if they didn’t make his Top 10.

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